Not many would feel at home in a war zone, but for one artist placing himself “at the crossroads of history when war is inevitable” is a conscious choice.
In 1949, George Gittoes was born. Fast forward more than six decades, he has dedicated a large portion of his life to documenting “the heart of darkness”.
As a war artist, he paints the horrors and heroics he witnessed in conflict zones over recent decades, including Rwanda, Nicaragua, Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Museum of the Riverina is currently showcasing a selection of Gittoes’ works including paintings and drawings, photographs, service records and films.
Gittoes said he is rather fond of Wagga and its surrounds.
“I have a long family history in the area and my grandmother had a guest house here,” he said.
After many hours of hard work, Gittoes said the exhibition shows how important it is for Australia to have a strong and humane army.
“One of my painting is from my time in Rwanda with Jonathan Church, who was killed in the Black Hawk Crash,” he said. “Jono and I used to collect the babies and children from this terrible massacre.
“There was this one moment, he was a tough guy, where his face cracked and you could see tears coming down as he carried a child.”
Gittoes said it was one of the hardest works he ever completed.
“When I got back from Rwanda, I did artworks of the victims of the massacre, but I loved Jono so much I couldn’t face doing it,” he said. “I did it especially for this show and it was worth it and I I knew I had to do it.
When he was killed, his mother called me and said ‘You know George, it's terrible to lose a son but to know that he saved a lot of children made a huge difference’.”
Gittoes said Australian soldiers often show their greatest courage when they are doing humanitarian work.
“I am lucky that I was with them and we can be proud of what our soldiers do,” he said.
“It’s a great thing for the world to know we care.”
Gittoes said a game of cricket often bonded the Australian soldiers with locals.
Gittoes’ art often tells the story of intimate moments found at the heart of violence, perhaps none quite so much as Immaculee.
In 1995, Gittoes began his day after a few hours of sleep in Kibheo, Rwanda.
“This young women, Immaculee, sat patiently in a state of shock,” he said. “A friend of hers had stitched up two major machete wounds in her head but the slash across her face still hung open.”
Gittoes found out there was nothing to be done for Immaculee, apart from keeping her company in her final hours.
“I began to sketch her,” he said. “Immaculee asked me why I was drawing her and I replied ‘I want the world to see what had been done to you’.”
Gittoes said a fire had been lit in Immaculee and she was determined to remain conscious.
“Her spirit flickered in our and out of life,” he said. “As I continued to work, her eyes never left mine – clinging to life until I had finished.
“Too soon she was gone.”
Some might wonder at how Gittoes gained the trust of so many people, but he said it’s the nature of their environment.
“For everyone who is in a conflict zone it is a survival tactic – it is a skill to determine if you can trust someone really quickly,” he said.
“It surprises people that it normally only takes them a couple of minutes to realise I am an idiot and they know I am not going to hurt them, maybe I come across as a kind grandfather,” he said.
“People have always trusted me and I have never betrayed anyone.”
Gittoes said a common misconception is that channeling his experiences into art is therapy.
“Doing the paintings is not therapy, quite often even having to relive something for an interview is quite tough,” he said. “It’s the drawing and writing I do when I am there that helps.
”In my book, it’s mainly my diary and notes from these places.
“You have no one to talk to and your wife and children are a long way away, but I think for all soldiers, as well as being given their kit, they should also be given a diary.”
Gittoes said another fact becomes clear in conflict zones, there is no such thing as ‘good guys and bad guys'.
“I'm not stuck in the black and white description,” he said.
This is evident in the story of ‘Little Hitler’ about a gang member by the name of Steel. Steel and his gang are a “10 on the scary scale”, according to Gittoes.
“Steel is a little Hitler and just as ruthless with human life, yet he made sure everyone got an equal share of the takeaway I ordered and, when finished, he filled them with leftovers for gang members who missed out,” he writes in his book.
Gittoes said his work represents what Australians care about.
“We care about the underdog,” he said. “We are concerned about what is happening to people elsewhere and I think this is because we tend to travel more than anyone else.”
Gittoes said it was important for Australia to retain its own identity.
“We have to stop following bad US intelligence,” he said. “For instances, I was in Baghdad and I knew there were no weapons of mass destruction. That conflict led to the destabilisation of Iraq which led to ISIS which led to the destruction of Syria, which was all based on faulty intelligence.”
Gittoes said the public perception of the military is that they’re immune to culture.
“I found that to be the opposite,” he said. “I have loved the support they have given me as an artist and I have never felt misunderstood by them,” he said.
Gittoes said he thanks Genevieve Mott from the museum and his wife, Hellen Rose, and his children.
Gittoes and his wife now live in Werri Beach on the south coast of NSW and he continues his work. Gittoes latest piece is a documentary filmed in south Chicago tracking gang violence.
The Realism of War: Works of Humanity by George Gittoes will be on exhibition until November 18 at the Museum of the Riverina’s Historic Council Chambers site.
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